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Conflict

Conflict is normal.

Quick links:
Common situations / reasons for conflict
Guidelines for good communication
Steps to resolving conflict

At some time or other in your life, you will have interactions with other people which do not go as well as you would have liked.   However, sometimes you can feel that you are being attacked personally and that is when you are tempted to lash out in anger or fear.   When you have those strong feelings, it can make it difficult for you to hear what someone else is trying to say.   And in extreme situations, such confrontation can make you feel threatened and fearful about your personal well-being and your ability to function.

Some common situations students can find themselves at risk of being in conflict with others include:-

  • Differences with flatmates over the ‘rules of the flat’
  • Disagreements with the wishes or advice of others
  • Miscommunications with flatmates, landlords, boyfriends, girlfriends
  • Challenges from Tutors, Lecturers, University staff, flatmates
  • Clashes of opinion when in discussion with flatmates, peers, academics when things get too ‘personal’

You can often prevent minor conflicts from becoming more serious by changing the way in which you communicate.

Conflict can be an Opportunity and not just a Threat

There are two common reasons why people get into conflict:

  • They do not communicate clearly or listen respectfully
  • They have different needs or interests which, without some negotiation, do not easily co-exist.

It is possible to look in a different way at how you communicate with others so that you can turn conflict into an opportunity to achieve clearer communication and thus bring about change.   Here are some guidelines which can help you deal with situations which are causing trouble.

Guidelines for Good Communication

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget some common ‘rules of thumb’ which aid successful communication.

Good Communication is a 3-Step Process

  1. Send clear messages – verbal communication and your body language both count.   Think about what you want to say and how it may be understood (or misunderstood)
  2. Receive messages – what is heard is part fact and part feeling and so you need to be clear on both levels.   When you are listening, pay attention to both facts and feelings.
  3. Acknowledge messages – you can only be sure that you have communicated what you meant to communicate when your listener gives you acknowledgement confirming their understanding.   As a listener, summarise what you have heard and ask questions to seek clarification if part of the message seems unclear.

Respect the Other Person’s Needs as well as Your Own

You have valid concerns that need to be addressed.  But so does the person with whom you are in conflict (even if they are not immediately obvious).

Tackle the Problem Directly with the Other Person

It is much better to work directly with the other person in the conflict.  Going through others can only serve to escalate the conflict or lead to further misunderstandings.

Avoid involving other friends or members of your family or asking them to “take sides” and, as far as possible, keep the conflict out of the public eye.   Whilst it can be useful to check out your perceptions of the situation with other people or ask other people’s views on your actions etc., if you are merely looking for confirmation for your own views, this is more than likely going to lead to a more entrenched position.

Separate the Problem from the Person

Pointing out the distinction between the problem and the person and reinforcing that you wish to treat the person respectfully may help the other person to do the same.   Your issues are more likely to be resolved if you avoid making personal attacks which embarrass or ridicule the other person.

Speak without Interrupting the Other

Further misunderstanding may occur if you do not give the other person the opportunity to finish what they have to say.   And you can also be accused of not listening if you are interrupting the other person before they have finished.   You may also want to ensure that you both agree about everything so far before going on to the next point.

Negotiate and Compromise

Look for mutually satisfying agreements.   One-sided offers tend not to work.   Although it is common to think there always has to be a winner and a loser in any confrontation, it is not necessarily true.   Participating in negotiations where the goal is a ‘win-win’ solution (i.e., both parties attain some satisfaction on their needs and interests) is both possible and preferable.

‘Interests’ v. ‘Positions’

Often when we are negotiating with others, we think, that by taking a ‘hard line’ or exaggerating the ‘bottom line’, we will get a better result.  Actually, taking such positions can often backfire because the other person can feel upset, unfairly treated or they may just decide to take the position of ‘digging their heels in’.

A better approach is to think about the interests underlying your initial position on an issue.   An underlying interest is usually related to a principle held, or a moral value, or a hope or expectation, or some less tangible need.   If the interest is why you have taken a position, then it will be the interest that leads you to want a certain response.

For example, you might get into a conflict with your friend because he didn’t call you when he said he would but much later instead.   The conflict could become an argument about how late is ‘acceptable’ (and your position could be that ‘calling late is unacceptable’).   However, the underlying interest might be that you are feeling vulnerable because he did not call when he said he would and you might only want to be reassured of his feelings for you.   In that case, it will be much easier to sort out what to do about phone calls once you are both reassured about your feelings for each other.

Four Steps to Resolving Conflict

These suggested steps incorporate the guidelines mentioned above and can help resolve conflicts:-

  1. If you are in public and find yourself in a conflict, stop and ask to meet the other person in a neutral private and safe setting at a time which suits you both, so that you can both speak confidentially without creating a scene and without being interrupted.
  2. Look at the other person as they too should look at you.   Listen to the other person as they too should be listening to you.   This means that each of you feels heard and understood, and has had their views acknowledged.   Doing it like this means you can begin to undo the damage to your relationship which the conflict has been causing.   It is worth taking the time to hear the other person’s point of view – it is likely to save time in the long run.   Take turns to list the issues you want resolved (remember – positions) which is the list of the practical matters that need to be addressed.   List your interests as principles you would hope any agreement could be based upon, or needs you would like to be met.   Go back and forth listening to each other until each of you has fully stated your views and you both agree that you have each been heard and understood.
  3. Offer options with an open mind, using negotiation skills between you to meet the expressed concerns, needs and interests of each of you.   Remember the difference between positions and interests, and strive to meet the interests of both parties.   Combine and refine the options discussed, remembering that it may very well be possible to work out a ‘win-win’ situation together which neither of you could have discovered on your own.
  4. Conclude the negotiations with agreements made in good faith which have been specified and which satisfy both of you.   This minimises the risk of future conflict.   Keep your discussions confidential unless you both agree to tell any others who may need to know what you have decided and what the decisions involve.

Finally, if you don’t reach an agreement, do not be afraid to try again at another time.   Take some space and have further thoughts before trying again.   And remember too that it can sometimes be better to try to resolve a conflict bit by bit, giving each of you time to think and time to consider and time to rest.

For more help and information about this or about anything else, why not speak to Student Services?  Email: theasc@st-andrews.ac.uk

Student Services
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